To the casual passerby, the space at 160 10th Street in Astoria may not look much different than it has for some time: Paintings can be seen through the large storefront windows against the stark white walls inside, and the hand-painted sign identifying it as the Astoria Fine Art Gallery still hangs above the door as it has for years.
But big changes have been visited on this modest space in recent days.
For years, it served as a showroom for some of the thousands of pieces of original art owned by beloved Astorian teacher and community booster Michael Foster. After his passing in 2016, locals Zelda English and Barry Brown took over and rechristened the space the Wake Gallery.
And now, after only two months open to the public under that name, it’s changed hands again.
As of March, it is officially the McVarish Gallery, under the proprietorship of Astoria-based painter Jill McVarish.
McVarish has had her eye on the space for some time, quite literally. For inspiration, she takes a regular morning walk along the waterfront with her dog, Chauncey, and the gallery on 10th was a daily stop along her route.
“Michael Foster always had the most amazing art hanging here, just an incredible collection,” she said. “But I don’t think it was open to the public, so I never went in. It always seemed to be a place to enjoy the art from a bit of a distance.”
This changed with the assumption of the lease by English and Brown.
“They really turned it into a nice space — pulled the carpet up, opened things up a lot,” McVarish said. “Then after only two months, I saw it was for rent again, so I just called them out of curiosity. It turned out to be pretty affordable and, well, I didn’t know what else to say, so I said I was going to do it!”
The gallery serves as both McVarish’s studio and an exhibition space, where one wall is devoted to a rotating exhibit of her own work and the remainder given over to the art of some of her favorite fellow artists. “It’s really cool to finally have a gallery and show the kind of work I like,” she said.
Hilarious and gorgeous
First up (showing through Friday, April 13) is Sam Vaughan, from Berkeley, California, an old classmate of McVarish’s from the San Francisco Art Institute.
Vaughan’s silkscreens and stone lithographs reflect the influence of the northern renaissance artists, with a hint of the baroque and a strain of the sublimely ridiculous, perhaps best illustrated by a series of prints called “Cute Commies.” Hard to describe in print, but suffice it to say, if you’ve ever wanted to see Karl Marx clad in only a G-string and stockings, or a naked V.I. Lenin demurely wielding a parasol and a handkerchief, now’s your chance.
Portland-based painter Gustavo Ponce follows from Saturday, April 14, through Friday, May 11, and Lisa Kaser, will be showing her watercolors and drawings Tuesday, May 15, through Friday, June 8.
As for McVarish herself, her own art, favoring oils on linen, combines classicism with the contemporary, and realism with the absurd. You could be looking at a painting by one of the Dutch masters — a key influence, inspired by her time enrolled at the prestigious Garrett Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam — if it weren’t for the incongruous figures and impossible scenarios captured therein. Anthropomorphized animals play classical instruments. Sesame Street’s Elmo re-enacts “The Death of Marat.” Ronald McDonald is made up for the Day of the Dead.
The results are both hilarious and gorgeous, which should give art lovers ample reason to visit the gallery — not to mention the means to subsidize it. McVarish’s work has been commissioned by a number of high profile patrons (such as TV host and podcaster Chris Hardwick, who purchased seven of her Muppet paintings and promoted her work to his fanbase), and the high demand for her unique approach to art should help sustain this new endeavor.
To that end, McVarish has artists booked into the space for the rest of the year, and is considering using the gallery as an occasional performance space. But first comes branding.
“We’re in the middle of getting a new sign painted for above the door,” McVarish said. “I intend to stay for a while.”